Monday, May 13th, 2013

Why NBC Will Regret Not Picking Up 'Mulaney'

Late Friday afternoon, NBC announced that it has declined to pick up John Mulaney's sitcom, Mulaney. It was a surprising move, given that the highly anticipated and already buzzy show had Lorne Michaels as a producer and an incredible cast. Having seen a version of the script, and based on Brad's on-the-scene reporting, I can say that it was a good pilot and that the series had enormous potential. It's a shame that it won't be on NBC's schedule this fall. But in the long run, what NBC will really regret is not just picking up the show Mulaney, but adding John Mulaney to its primetime ranks.

There are no surefire bets in comedy or television, but I stand by this as a truism: Lorne Michaels picks winners. Regardless of the near-constant din about the quality of Saturday Night Live's writing that has lingered for decades, it's impossible to dispute his eye for talent. The list of major stars who got their first exposure from Michaels is thoroughly impressive, with everyone from Bill Murray to Kristen Wiig owing huge debts of success to their SNL breaks. The most amazing rags-to-riches (or awkward-to-megastar) story will always be Conan O'Brien — not many people saw what Michaels did in the early of years of Late Night with Conan O'Brien (as the ratings proved). Now it's impossible to imagine the modern day comedy scene without Conan's influence. And remember the reaction when Jimmy Fallon was announced as his late night successor? That guy? Who wants to watch him giggle for an hour every night? And yet, it was the now-68-year-old Michaels who saw Fallon's potential to build a light-hearted late night show that appeals to the young audience rapidly deserting the format.

And it isn't just the success stories that prove Michaels' gift as a talent scout. Sarah Silverman wasn't used well at SNL? She was still brought in at only 22 by someone who saw her potential. Bob Odenkirk hated writing for the show? His presence in the writers room proves that someone knew talent when he saw it. Success stories from Portlandia to The Lonely Island continue to emerge, and bringing in young talent like Chelsea Peretti and Michael Che to guest write at SNL shows he hasn't lost his touch.

With all that history, it's somewhat baffling that NBC would pass on the Michaels-produced Mulaney. Because, with or without that show, Mulaney is going to be a huge success. He's been on the brink of stardom for years now, and this show felt like a natural way for him to break. He will anyways.

Take Tina Fey. In 2006, she was a well-liked and relatively-known entity from SNL and Mean Girls, but not a superstar by any means. The 30 Rock pilot was…not very good, honestly. It lacked the imagination and innovation that would characterize the series in later years, and at the time, NBC had a really good reason to not pick it up — how could it possible compete with that other behind-the-scenes-at-SNL show that was bound to be a hit? But the network picked it up anyways, and thank God they did. Not for Fey, but for NBC. From our 2013 perspective, it's so obvious that Fey would go on to brilliant things. She'd still be writing witty memoirs, being an awesome awards show host, and uncannily mimicking a certain former governor. Were it not for 30 Rock, Fey would have brought her immense talents elsewhere, and NBC would have missed out on one of the most iconic TV series of a generation. NBC didn't make Fey brilliant; it simply hitched it's wagon to her clearly-rising star.

And that is what they could, and should, have done with Mulaney. Now that Seth Meyers has been officially announced as the new Late Night host, some see Mulaney as his natural Weekend Update replacement. He's certainly qualified — he spent years writing for the show, he's done desk pieces before, and he's the co-creator of WU's most beloved character. If he does take over, it might seem like an everybody-wins situation for NBC, promoting Mulaney without entrusting him with a primetime spot. (Though, it never hurts to remember the last time NBC thought they could have their cake and eat it too.) But it wouldn't be a surprise if it doesn't work out. He was absent from SNL's writing staff for most of this past season, and he's clearly interested in working on his standup and pursuing other opportunities. For years, Weekend Update has been a springboard — one that Mulaney doesn't need. It's hard to imagine him staying at WU for more than a couple years, and surely he's already being wooed by other outlets. His time at the Weekend Update desk would feel like treading water, before someone wisens up and puts Mulaney front and center.

NBC had the chance to do just that. Despite his young age, Mulaney would have sat comfortably alongside Amy Poehler and Joel McHale on the network's primetime roster. In the years to come, people will still be talking and writing about Mulaney, and the network will regret it if he's no longer "NBC's John Mulaney."

Elise Czajkowski is a Contributing Editor at Splitsider and a freelance journalist in New York City. 

Photo courtesy of Mindy Tucker.

Sponsored Content
  • Name

    Half this site is just mulaney fanboy articles. STAHP.

    • CreedWorstBandEver

      Scott Stah(p)p? No thank you….

  • Obviously It Wasn't Great

    Yet literally anyone in general America or elsewhere will have no idea who he is, the ratings will bomb, and it'll get cancelled. Stop acting like this guy is a well-known, television A-lister, because he isn't. And naming a show after yourself even knowing you aren't an A-lister to begin with is pretty ballsy, and I'm not surprised that NBC passed.

    • Calabound

      Seinfeld wasn't that well known in general America, and look how that turned out. Naming a show after yourself isn't that unbelievable.

      • Baby Boomer

        Seinfeld was on the Tonight Show a zillion times. You are wrong.

        • http://www.facebook.com/jasonfarr Jason Farr

          Seinfeld wasn't a household name until the show was on…and even then not the first season or two. It had it's breakout in the 4th season.
          Nonetheless, Calabound is not wrong. Seinfeld was not a household name and not much more of a star than Mulaney is when he started his show.

          • Baby Boomer

            Jason Farr, let's pretend you were born in 1979 (right?). How would you know if Seinfeld was a household name or not?

            Seinfeld was ABSOLUTELY known to the country because of many, many appearances on the Tonight Show (plus on Letterman's "Late Night"). You realize (well, you don't) that tens of millions of people watched the Tonight Show EVERY NIGHT back then?

            Saying that Mulaney and Seinfeld are equals is a stretch. Unless you're ignoring context and reality.

    • anon

      You called it

  • this is out of control

    it's articles like this that cause people who are good at what they do (Lena Dunham, Mulaney) to be hated. Yeah YOU think he's great, most people in the comedy coumminity think he's great but that doesn't mean anyone owes anything to him and that everything he touches is golden. you seem so sure that your (self-appointed) golden boy didn't get what he wanted so you rush to defend him. Why? It's not good for anyone.

  • Ed S.

    I was at the pilot taping. I like Mulaney, which is why I went, and which is why I was surprised. It was not funny. It was hackneyed jokes with a gay neighbor and a black friend. It wasn't amazing and would've flopped on TV.

    • HeatherW

      Sounds like you should have written this article. The author admits he had only seen a script of the pilot, and while something might look golden on paper, tv isn't filmed on paper. Thanks for providing an actual first hand review of the show.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mark.longden Mark Longden

    There are no sure things in comedy, and while I like Mulaney just fine, he's not streets ahead of 20 other New York standups (including the ones listed in the recent article here), any of whom would no doubt do a decent job in the WU chair.

  • http://twitter.com/daniel_immke Daniel Immke

    It's a numbers game. 30 Rock never had good ratings and NBC already has critically acclaimed comedies that make it very little money. It's kind of sad to see that strategy of trying to produce really good TV failing but I think they're trying to steer the ship into more broad territory (I'm sure they would love to have a show like Big Bang Theory.)

    • Alicia

      It was called Whitney, and it was cancelled. (Fortunately.)

  • Dvoetberg

    Shouldn't use "anyways" in writing something like this, right? So, NBC will regret this because Mulaney literally could have stood alongside such ratings giants as Poehler and McHale?

    And, if I thought for a few minutes about it, I'm sure I could come up with some Lorne losers.

    Anyway, Mulaney is really funny; I would have liked to have seen the show, but I don't think NBC will regret the decision and I don't think this essay does a good job of proving they will.

  • John Doe

    This is a fairly obnoxious article.

    It presupposes that NBC (or any network for that matter) cares about the future success of "young' gifted" comics that they've passed on. NBC has played this game for decades. They throw darts at a board, and hope that one of them lands on bull's eye. Sure, Mulaney may go on to be GREAT, but plenty of other "young, gifted" comics have had pilots not picked up. You think NBC lost ground by canceling Richard Pryor in HIS PRIME? Nope. They just picked up the Cosby Show, then Seinfeld, then Friends.

    Networks don't cry over spilled milk, they just go out and get some more milk.

    • Alicia

      I'd agree there's no use crying over it, but NBC's performance the last decade or so hasn't been on par with Cosby, Seinfeld or Friends' ratings. They might have done well 20 years ago, but they're not picking winners now — not when only 2 of their half hour comedies (and very clever and fun but not highly rated ones) are continuing to next year.

      There are no magical cows for networks to keep milking. The only thing NBC has left right now is critical acclaim and die-hard loyal fanbases, which it seems is something they could have continued with this show.

      • John Doe


        It's a gamble. Last decade wasn't great for NBC. However, that doesn't mean they'll fudge up this decade like the last one. I was using the Cosby/Seinfeld example to show that even when they passed on Pryor, they were able to pick hits after. Mulaney isn't Richard Pryor, but the idea still holds that if NBC is able to pick some winners, they probably won't think twice about passing on Mulaney.

        Point is, all networks think about the present and future. They don't really have the time to reflect on past decisions (good or bad).

        • http://www.facebook.com/jasonfarr Jason Farr

          I agree with both you and Alicia. There are no more sacred cows to milk, but it is true, networks pass on shows from good people. Whether the shows they passed on were any good is what matters because it speaks to their decision making.
          If the Mulaney show was a solid hit or at the least a brilliant, but modestly watched show (like 30 Rock or Parks and Rec) then I'd say this was a mistake for sure. I know they need a Friends or a Seinfeld to swoop in and save them, but 30 Rock and Parks and Rec help pay the bills and give them credibility. That does go a long way, too.
          What gets me is that they couldn't have rolled the dice on Go On. That show was getting stronger and the cast was quite enjoyable. They're canceling it speaks to their wanting to go broader just as much as not picking up Mulaney is.

          • Alicia

            Yeah, I agree with both of you, ultimately. We'll see what their actual line-up looks like next fall! I guess time will tell if not picking up Mulaney's show was either a possibly stupid decision or a solid one (though we'll never really know for sure).

            I don't know much about Go On, though it sounds like it might have had potential — but I sure am glad they cancelled Whitney.

      • philgreen

        It'd make NBC look better to this site's audience but 30 Rock's ratings for example weren't too spectacular. Don't get me wrong, the show was incredible but NBC is in the business of selling ad minutes.

        • Alicia

          The point was that since NBC has been doing a terrible job of selling ad minutes lately (in the last decade), what they have left is critical acclaim and die-hard audiences.

          I truly believe that NBC could use this fact as a chance to pioneer a new wave of excellent network television designed for a more niche audience (read: a highly educated audience with lots of disposable income and/or time to discuss and laud the shows online, serving as free advertising). I'm not saying Mulaney would have been a continuation of that trend, but I would say that not only are there no more magical cows left to milk — the world economy is growing past cow's milk, anyway.

          NBC, in other words, like the other networks, is eventually going to need to get out of the business of "selling ad minutes" and into whatever the next phase of making-money-with-TV is.

  • Evan Roche

    I think your first sentence needs editing.

  • Zachary

    Tina Fey may not have been a superstar, but she was fairly well known. John Mulaney is essentially a total unknown. The pilot tested less than perfect, it's not the first time NBC passed on a Lorne Michaels pilot in the Broadway empire era (Beach Lane in 2010), they have another multi cam with lots of young stand ups, that went to series this year (Undateable), and this is just another missed pilot. Stop whining.

  • zachajewea

    Who knows if this show would've been good. This is his first pilot and if he is actually funny he will get another shot, or ten. Grow up Splitsider, you really need to quit it with all the fanboy shit. It's not a good look for you.

  • http://twitter.com/Bhess Bhess

    I said before that I thought Mulaney would be better served in the long run by being the WU anchor. I think he can do a better job than Seth at WU. He'll get exposure to the national audience and I think a lot of people will like his take on things.

  • nick

    Think this article is the birth of a comedy supervillain.

  • Comedy Fan 4 Lyfe

    Who the hell is this guy???

  • Eduardo Nacho Camacho

    Conan O'Brien is a rags to riches story? I guess Harvard isn't what it…always has been?

  • marty

    Who wrote this? "Anyways" is not a word. Hard to trust a publication that doesn't even hire good writers.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jasonfarr Jason Farr

    Ouch, people. Can't we take the personal insults out of the criticism *you* see in this article? I think Elise makes a valid point about not getting in the John Mulaney game. Maybe the pilot wasn't great, but Mulaney is and I think the point is that it would have been smart and nice for them to pick up on this rising star. Why so angry as if she said he's already a big star?

  • MES

    It's interesting how all these Mulaney haters keep posting anonymously around the same time with the same points in run-on sentences using the occasional all-caps EMPHASIS.

  • MillyQPublic

    Please stop using your auto-correct. It makes your articles damn near unreadable. AND I hope you don't get paid for your "journalism" BECAUSE starting a sentence or paragraph with a preposition is the worst, most bullshit kind of 14-year-old-who-can't-read writing that exists.

  • Level Minded

    Spot on with this article.

  • Matt

    This has to be the most embarrassing article on the site. Are you happy now that the show was picked up by FOX, you baby? Well, what do you know, it's terrible.


    What was the point of all of this?

  • DrizzyGadget

    Just watched the show and its not funny at all, especially after family guy. He may be a good writer for SNL, but sitcoms seem not to be his fortay.

  • wydok

    Well, this show is going to most likely be canceled, so I doubt NBC regrets anything.

  • Anon

    I bet no one at NBC regrets passing on Mulaney now. I am a huge fan of John Mulaney, the comedian. But his show just does not work. NBC made that right call. I hope this show gets the axe right away so John can get to work developing another show that showcases just how funny he really is.

  • AHZE

    Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.

  • Hello There

    Well, this analysis looks pretty ridiculous now, doesn't it?

  • Scott

    Do you still think NBC regrets NOT picking up Mulaney?

  • Les

    Mulaney comes off misogynistic and totally unfunny. Good riddance.

  • Zoglog

    HAHA…. I bet you regret writing this article.